Beit Midrash

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Why was the Plague of Blood not enough?


Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Rimon

At first glance, Moses could have limited the number of plagues to one. Had Moses said to Pharaoh: "Until the Children of Israel are freed, I will not take away this plague" (and he would not content himself with promises), there is no doubt that, in the end, Pharaoh would have broken down and let them go. Why, then, did they need all ten plagues?

According to the simple meaning, even when the water had been turned to blood, the Egyptians still had access to water, even though it was not from the river (Exodus 7:24, and see Ibn Ezra) "All the Egyptians dug around the Nile for water to drink because they could not drink from the water of the Nile." However, this could not have lasted any extended length of time, as the Nile is the primary source of water for Egypt. Furthermore, according to an interpretation of our Sages (also based on the simple meaning of the verse in Exodus 7:19), whatever water there was turned into blood, even water within the houses: "Throughout the land of Egypt – even in the bathhouses and baths in the homes" (Rashi 7:19). The question then returns: why did they need more than a single plague?

It appears that the conclusion is that there is independent significance to the plagues, beyond their use as a tool to coerce Pharaoh to free the Nation of Israel. If we study the verses, we will see that the Torah repeats time and time again the idea of "in order that you shall know that I am the Lord in the midst of the earth" (Exodus 8:18). The aim of the plagues was to show that God rules the world. The plagues were meant not only for Pharaoh’s punishment, and not only in order to free the Nation of Israel, but in order to reveal God’s presence to the world.

It is possible that there is further significance to the plagues of Egypt, which we will see when dealing with another question. The Torah describes how God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. If Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, why was he punished when he could not stop himself from sinning?

These questions may be connected. It is possible that God did not actively harden Pharaoh’s heart, but gave him the feeling that he would be able to oppose God. This feeling of Pharaoh’s was tested in the ten plagues that were inflicted on Egypt. God brought the plague of blood. As a result, Pharaoh promised to free the Nation of Israel, and the plague came to an end. Pharaoh then reneged on his promise and felt that he was able to act against God and to mock Him. This may be what it means when we are told his heart was hardened: He gave Pharaoh the feeling that he was in control of the situation. That is why ten plagues were needed. It was not a problem to punish Pharaoh, because God had not removed Pharaoh’s ability not to sin, but had only created a situation that enabled him to feel as if he could mock God (for more on this topic, see Abarbanel Exodus 7:3; Sefer HaIkarim, fourth ma’amar, 25; also heard from Rav Yaakov Medan.)

In our lives, we often fail to see God’s control of the world. If we had the ability to see how God punishes every sin or rewards every good deed, we would not have free will. We would be forced to obey God’s will. God gives us the possibility of acting according to our own desires, but we must be wary not to harden our own hearts. We must always remember that God is always in control of every situation, no matter how much power we may feel. We are given freedom of choice for us to recognize that our freedom is to do what God wants in the world.
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